ok, a week late and a dollar short, but here’s my take on the amazing night of music a few lucky thousand of us were fortunate to be a part of September 12th.
Show Review: Trey Anastasio with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 9/12/09, Carnegie Hall, NYC
By Pete Mason
For years I have considered orchestral compositions the ultimate form of music, with the intricacies that I felt would never be understood, a style that would be too difficult to get into, and a high-class following that would elude me forever. This started to change years ago when I heard the amazing beauty of Eric Clapton playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London (2/10/90), and discovered the intersection of one of the greatest guitarist in history and one of the finest orchestras in the world. Hearing Layla, White Room, Bell Bottom Blues, as well as a unique Guitar Concerto in two movements performed with a guitar (?!) AND a 40 piece orchestra. My ears never had it so good. Every note was played, expanding, but not drowning out, the original composition. Bands like Queensryche and YES had explored orchestral infusion into their rock act previously, but the Clapton collaboration hit home with me, and I was forever hooked.
The only thing that stood in the way of getting a fix for this new-orchestral sound was more combination acts like the one that got me hooked. It took only a couple years before Trey was playing with the Vermont Youth Orchestra on ‘Guyute’, but opportunities to see this were limited. I listened to the version on ‘Sharin’ in the Groove’, The Mockingbird Foundation’s tribute album to Phish (mbird.org), over and over, guiding the orchestra while I drove cross-country and around town. This was some of the best music I could have imagined to hear.
When Trey Anastasio was announced to play the 2004 Bonnaroo music festival with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, I knew that this would be the musical experience I had been long waiting for – combining my favorite band’s music with an orchestra, drawing out every last note of music hidden in there, expanding the tablature to a full musical composition replete with instruments I had not seen nor heard from since grade school. The experience was the highlight of that Bonnaroo, and set the stage for the musical bliss that was set upon Carnegie Hall this past Saturday.
The show having been announced in mid-July, I immediately purchased the best seats I could afford (4th row balcony, which provided immense views), as I knew the size of the room was considerably smaller than a normal phish-venue, and the demand would certainly be high. Arriving at Carnegie Hall, I saw what I had joked would be there, presuming it wouldn’t – nitrous tanks and a few shady-entrepreneurs making a quick buck on fans with money to burn on a cheap high. Ignoring this, I went inside and found myself walking up, up, up, up to the top level, and then was guided to my seat by an usher, which felt very high-class. Taking my seat, I marveled at the crowd around me, the youth, the remarkably familiar feeling I had in this great community of people, as well as the sharply dressed folks who took the occasion to go ‘phormal’, as we once had for Radio City in 2000. The crowd was very chill and happy, and notably respectful of the hall, likely thrilled to be able to see such a unique night of music in such a famous building.
The seats were small and legroom was nil, but that was all taken away with the warming up of the New York Philharmonic. You could hear each section of instruments (the strings, the horns, the woods, the percussion, etc…) randomly tuning up, and a finely tuned ear could hear aspects of the peak of ‘Guyute’, the middle section of ‘Pebbles and Marbles’, and miscellaneous tuning and playing as the crowd got settled.
Upon their arrival to the stage, the principal violinist, the conductor, Asher Fisch, and then The Bad Lieutenant himself, Trey, came out to thunderous applause, likely the loudest Carnegie has ever heard. ‘First tube’ was soft and quiet at first, but perfect. Trey’s guitar was quieter than ever, but he changed the volume as the song got towards the end, with an amazing buildup, similar to the now-invigorated versions phish has played in 09. The flutes, violins and bongos/congos are heavy in this song, carrying the tune to its final section and peaking very subtly and suddenly. ‘The Inlaw Josie Wales’, ‘Brian and Robert’, ‘The Divided Sky’ and ‘Water in the Sky’ were soft excursions into the mid-90s writing of Trey, and showed the orchestral side of his writing that had been there all this time. Divided Sky was the crowd pleaser-supreme in the first set, giving the crowd a wide range of melodies and expansion of an already tremendous song. ‘Pebbles and Marbles’ and ‘Guyute’ closed out the first set, the latter of which had many heads bobbing and moving hands subtly to the movement of Asher Fisch, who was one of the more animated conductors I could have imagined, making Tom Hulce’s Mozart look like a impassive director of music. Fisch was swaying from side to side, almost seeming to leap in the air at times when the music compelled him to do so. It almost seems as though he would fit in at a Phish show.
Setbreak brought about a trip to the headiest smelling bathrooms since the last Phish show, and long lines of fans waiting for overpriced water, but the room was getting a bit warm. ‘Time Turns Elastic’ started with the first two movements, which are not heard in the Phish version, as they are a cornucopia of the orchestra’s sound leading into the ‘Submarine’ section of the 30 minute composition.
This may be one of the best compositions I have ever heard, with high and lows, peaks and valleys, crescendos and decrescendos, arpeggios and other words I had to look up, the masterpiece of Trey’s orchestral composition so far proved itself to be a crowd pleaser, with an attentive crowd focusing on the various sections. When played with Phish, fans take time to refuel and make pit stops, but for this version of ‘Time Turns Elastic’, every audience member hung on each section, as the segues were fluid to say the least. The most fascinating thing about this version of ‘Time Turns Elastic’ was the focus on the various movements and sections within the song. The final section, ‘Carousel’, brought the song to a resounding peak, with applause that was the loudest of the evening thus far.
‘Let me Lie’ was touching, soft and short, providing a nice interlude in between two long epics, the latter being the debut of ‘You Enjoy Myself’, the immense crowd pleaser. This was the song the entire crowd was waiting with baited breath to hear, only to be paused and let the excitement build longer as Trey thanked the audience, the orchestra, and remembered his late-sister, Kristine Anastasio Manning, for who’s foundation the night benefitted.
YEM started off with a round of applause overshadowing the opening section, but soon, you could hear a pin drop, were it not for the orchestra. The crowd hung on every note, hearing the song like never before, but really, like the song was meant to be heard – this version of the song brings out layers and aspects of the song still left unexplored through almost 500 performances over the course of the band’s career. The ‘Pre-Nirvana’ segment had the percussionist working a snare drum to emulate Fishman, as the strings brought about the largess of the ‘Nirvana’ section, with Trey playing softly and complementarily alongside the collection of musicians onstage. The xylophone in this section is worth turning the speakers up for. A crescendo appears here with the trumpets, French horns and tympanis working to bring the song to its first crest. More xylophone brings the section typically played by Mike to its peak, with Trey playing louder and the horns coming in to build the song up once again. The next section with the tremendous peak was resounding with horns and cymbals making it akin to the concert version, but so much better in so many ways. The bongos and congos took over the interlude in between these two sections, with an even louder zenith reached before ‘The Charge’ appeared and then dissolved with audience laughter, before a funky YEM jam beat was played by Trey and the percussionist, all the while the Trombones, Tuba and French Horn played ‘Boy, Man, God, Shit’ in a way it was never played before. You can’t help but laugh hearing this version, both out of the humor inflected by the horns, as well as the precision reached in the performance. Clarinets and other woods built up the song where the trampolines would usually come into play, and then the strings and full orchestra come into play, bringing the song into a three minute composed jam that highlighted all the parts of the song, as well as the musicians on stage, who were performing for an audience larger than they could possibly know.
As the final jam section ended and the strings played a very light ‘Wash Uffizi drive me to Firenze’, Trey set his guitar down and took towards the microphone, and began a vocal jam all on his own, a first for any Phish fan. The similarities between this vocal jam and the ‘Arc’ that Eddie Vedder performed on his recent solo tour this past summer were resounding, with the exception that Anastasio does his vocals all on his own, and without the need to loop the sounds; the room carried Anastasio’s voice throughout its acoustic borders, while the orchestra backed up each inflection of Trey’s voice.
The roar of the audience at the end was deafening, even for one of those cheering loudly. We cheered like a Phish audience for a very non-Phish set of performers, and they deserved every ounce of it. An encore of ‘If I Could’ was so perfect, you need to hear it first hand to truly appreciate how soft and elegant the song gets; the album version has strings towards the end, which is a nice start for a song that has found a new home in an orchestral composition. The harp solo after the first two sets of lyrics is enough to make your eyes well up with tears of joy, and then the strings make the wells runneth over. A more beautiful composition is hard to come by.
As the show ended, fans ventured out into the streets to dodge the nitrous vendors, and headed out into the night, having experienced one of the most amazing musical events of 2009, let alone the entire decade/century. Yes, it was that amazing.
Overall, even the most rabid of phish fans and music fans in general, would appreciate the intricacies, tempo changes, structure and multi-auditory stimulation that come from the greatness of an orchestra. Seeing Trey in an orchestral setting is the way to see him perform him music. Remember, he went to school for this, so this isn’t some silly venture like Jordan playing baseball. No, this is the real thing. This is Jerry Garcia playing solo shows, Mick Jagger putting out subpar solo albums for unknown reasons, and Bono hanging out with world leaders to push for more attention to Africa. This is where the rockstar in Trey goes on to become something more, something larger, something that transcends Phish, but brings along the music for the ride. You have to pondet the thought, that since Trey went to college for Composition, had he not co-founded Phish, would he have been the next Fisch?
One has to wonder, have we been duped this whole time by Phish, that now we deep down can appreciate the intricacy and effort it takes to create orchestral music? Most the songs played that night have been played by Phish since the early days (YEM, Divided Sky), the 90s (Guyute, Inlaw, Brian and Robert, Water in the Sky) and in recent years (Time Turns Elastic, Let me Lie, Pebbles and Marbles), yet at the time, few knew that we were hearing the rock and jam versions of classical songs. All these songs have that familiar strain, and can possibly convert Phisheads into Classicophiles in no time.
This show was a game-changer and eye-opener for many fans. Seek it out and join in one of the greatest auditory experiences you have ever heard.